Player-Architects: What They Offer, What They Lack, and Who Was the Best?

John Fought, the 1977 U.S. Amateur champion, a two-time PGA Tour winner, and a highly regarded course architect, believes a successful playing background can both hurt and hinder the transition into design.

“One advantage I had was that I’d seen some of the best courses in the world under tournament conditions,” he says. “I think if you can dissect great courses’ true playing character, it helps form a solid foundation. My experience competing on these courses was a great help.”

On the flip side, Fought adds that player-architects often make the mistake of creating courses that fit their game without sufficient regard for those who are actually going to play them.

Jack Nicklaus at Sea Pines with Charles Frasor, Donald O’Quinn, and Pete Dye (Photo courtesy The Sea Pines Resort)

“If a player-architect can’t separate his game from his designs,” Fought says, “he’s bound to create unimaginative courses.”

That, says Michigan-based designer Mike DeVries, is what distinguishes the great designers from player-architects who are prone to putting too great an emphasis on the elite player.

“They look at golf from a pure game-playing perspective,” says DeVries. “They’d rather the course be known for its level of difficulty, and don’t think too much about the average golfer.”

In deciding who we think the best player-architect in the game’s history might be, we first had to compile a list of the noteworthy professional players who have also made designing courses a career.

Professional golfers who became architects
Bill Bergin, James Braid, Ben Crenshaw, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, John Fought, Dan Hixson, Hale Irwin, Davis Love III, Tom Morris, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer, Willie Park Jr., Gary Player, Nick Price, Peter Thomson, Tom Weiskopf, Tiger Woods

The Runners Up

The most prominent player-architect today is, of course, Jack Nicklaus who not only won 18 major championships as a professional but also designed, co-designed, or has somehow been involved in the making of more than 400 courses around the world.

Among Nicklaus’s list of courses are a number of pearls—Cabo Del Sol, Desert Highlands, Harbour Town (with Pete Dye), Mayacama, Pronghorn, Quivira, Sebonack (with Tom Doak), and Muirfield Village. An incredible 59 major championships have been held on Nicklaus designs which, no matter what you think of his architecture, is hard to fathom.

Yet despite his undoubted success as a designer, however, many of the Golden Bear’s layouts are criticized for being excessively demanding and reflecting his own playing preferences a little too closely.

Looking to avoid a similar charge and build courses that accommodate a wider range of abilities is Tiger Woods. Although undoubtedly one of the game’s great players of all-time, the 15-time major champion is still a relatively new player to the design game (his first course, El Cardonal at Diamante, opened in 2014) and thus wouldn’t quite make the cut.

Another strong candidate is Scotland’s James Braid who won the Claret Jug five times and designed a handful of classics—Carnoustie (making significant changes to Old Tom Morris’s layout), Nairn (likewise revising Morris’s original), Royal Aberdeen (remodeling Archie Simpson’s layout), St. Enodoc, and the King’s and Queen’s Courses at Gleneagles.

Willie Park Jr. is worthy of a mention. The two-time Open champion was a fairly prolific designer both in Britain and the U.S. (Canada too), responsible for the original layout at Sunningdale (later revised by Harry Colt), Worplesdon, Huntercombe, and Hollinwell (Notts) in England. In the U.S., the North Course at Olympia Fields in Illinois and the wonderful Maidstone Golf Club on Long Island, N.Y., were his finest moments.

Ben Crenshaw is a candidate as a two-time Masters champion and partner in perhaps the most celebrated design firm of modern times—his alliance with Bill Coore resulting in a number of outstanding courses including The Plantation Course at Kapalua, Cabot Cliffs, Streamsong Red, Bandon Trails, and Sand Valley.

Old Tom Morris (Photo by Getty Images)

The Best Player-Architect: Tom Morris

The man who, we felt, owned the best combination of playing record and course designs, however, was definitely Old Tom Morris—who might actually have been the best golf architect of all time.

Besides winning the Open Championship four times, Morris had an enduring influence on course maintenance—pioneering the process of top-dressing greens with sand, tending to the upkeep of bunkers, and introducing the push-mower to the game. And he left us with more than 60 courses that he either designed himself or made significant alterations to.

He transformed primitive layouts at Prestwick, Carnoustie, Dornoch, Leven, Nairn, Lahinch, and St. Andrews where he widened fairways, separated tee boxes, and expanded/improved/rebuilt the greens on what we now call the Old Course. He built the first versions of Muirfield, Rosapenna, and Royal Portrush. And his courses at Westward Ho!, Elie, Machrihanish, Cruden Bay, the New Course at St. Andrews, and the incomparable Royal County Down are still largely intact.

DeVries gave voice to why he also thinks Morris Sr. is the best of the best, saying, “He contributed so much to the game. He taught or inspired many of the greats. It all started with him.”